The Pirates! Band of Misfits (A-)
U.K.: Peter Lord, 2012, Sony Pictures
Pirates! In real-life, most of them were probably scurvy gangs of sea-going psychopaths, but in the irresistible world of Aardman Animations, they're cute and funny and as lovable as a hungry pussycat. Aarrh! Myarrh! Utter contentment. Such is the effect of the latest stop-motion feature cartoon from the company that gave us Wallace & Gromit (good deed enough for one lifetime, you might think) and that here pleasures us with a new, feature-length stop-motion animated wonder called The Pirates! Band of Misfits -- a yo-ho-ho voyage based on one of the amusing Pirates! book series by author/screenwriter Gideon Defoe.
Ostensibly a movie for children -- and one that most children should love, even the potential sea-going psychopaths among them -- it is also marvelously crafted and delightfully scripted and scrumptiously acted by the kind of high-class British players who usually pop up these days in Harry Potter movies. It's not as good as the Aardman company's inimitable Wallace & Gromit cartoons, but what is?
Lord, primarily a producer, has overseen much of the Aardman output, long and short, since the '90s -- including the Nick Park-directed Wallace & Gromit classics, the studio's masterpieces. More occasionally, he's directed (Wat's Pig) or co-directed (Chicken Run, with Park). Here, working from a script by Defoe, with Aardman hand Jeff Newitt as co-director, Lord comes up with yet another jewel of stop-motion, that dauntingly ambitious and painstaking animation process, in which little clay puppets on small constructed wooden or clay backdrops are photographed one deliciously funny frame at a time, with a little CGI tossed in now and again these days for ocean waves and such.
The story, in the usual Aardman manner, is whimsical and literate and -- the word has never fit better --droll. The story's main character, The Pirate Captain (voiced by Hugh Grant), is a boastful, flamboyant, criminally ambitious but basically harmless dude of a buccaneer, with an immense red beard in which he hides parrots and other piratical objects, and a whimsical and oddly named crew that includes his Second Mate, The Pirate with a Scarf (Martin Freeman) and such other amiable privateers as The Pirate with Gout (Brendan Gleeson), The Albino Pirate (Anton Yelchin), The Surprisingly Curvaceous Pirate (Ashley Jensen) and The Pirate Who Likes Sunsets and Kittens (easy-going U.S. weatherman Al Roker). They seem a fairly contented lot, except for Pirate Captain himself, who is rankled by the fact that he's never won a Pirate-of-the-Year award, in competition with his main rascally rivals Black Bellamy (Jeremy Piven), Cutlass Liz (Salma Hayek) and The Pirate King (Brian Blessed).
Pirate Captain thinks he's found the key when his ship, which has been coming up empty in recent sea-sweeps and sea-attacks, happens upon no less than The Beagle, and its scientist-explorer, young Charles Darwin (David Tennant) -- or "Chuck," as Pirate Captain likes to call him. Eureka! Chuck excitedly identifies Captain's strange, lumpy-looking parrot, as no parrot at all, but probably the last living example of the thought-to-be-extinct dodo, a discovery that Chuck convinces the Captain will reap "untold riches" if they exhibit Polly at the next scientist-of-the-year competition in London.
So it's off to England -- where scientific fame and riches supposedly await the daffily dauntless P.C., along with streets abustle with famous Londoners and such literary and historical allusions as Jane Austen (who proves priggish) -- but where the Captain must also contend with the woman he calls "Vicky": pirate-hating, dodo-coveting Queen Victoria (played by that supreme character actress Imelda Staunton). Troubles at court and a sea-going fracas are obviously in the offing, and Lord and his Aardman armada don't disappoint.
Like many of the best cartoon features of today, Pirates! is so much brighter and wittier and more entertaining than most of the current live action films for adults, it's almost embarrassing. Everything is classier and better-done, especially the visuals and the dialogue. The fact that The Pirate Captain is being played by Grant -- who would usually be cast as some sort of fop -- indicates something of the the sheer joyous playfulness of Lord's film, which is neither bloodthirsty nor psychopathic, save for the moments Vicky has Polly in her queenly clutches.
Grant's charm sits well on The Pirate Captain, especially matched against the bellicose roaring of Black Bellamy and The Pirate King. Tennant is a properly prim Darwin; his constant companion is a frisky, literate chimpanzee, whom he resembles. Staunton, who played intense outlaw goodness in Mike Leigh's great period British soial drama Vera Drake and, just as well, establishment evil in the Potter series, pilfers a lot of the movie here, and against formidable competition.
But the scripting and voice acting is only part of the secret of Aardman. Much of the magic comes from their incredible, painstaking but exuberant craft, the way they can make us relate so well to a dodo or an angry queen, the sense in their movies of playthings-come-alive, the little worlds they create with such effortless-looking art and beguiling wizardry. Not many movies these days are genuinely lovable. But the Aardman movies make you happy in ways that mostly haven't been available to us since childhood, and that blessedly revive the spirit of youth and the joys of childhood as we watch, entranced. Pirates! (Extras: Peter Lord short films; Lord's "Pirates" film So You Want to be a Pirate?; filmmaker's commentary; featurettes.)
A Separation (Jodaeiye Nader az Simin)(A)
Iran: Asghar Farhadi, 2011, Sony Pictures Home Entertainment
Movies can open up a whole world for audiences, revealing even the most remote people and places. That's especially true of movies like A Separation, last year's much-praised, much-awarded foreign-language Oscar-winner from Iran. This engrossing human drama and mystery story, a "detective story without a detective," according to director-writer-producer Asghar Farhadi, brings us close to a country and a culture that many Americans find strange, unapproachable, even dangerous.
But it's the political bosses and tyrants and their abuses of power who make a country menacing: twisted "supreme leaders" like Iran's benighted Holocaust-denier Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and not the simple middle- and lower-class Tehran citizens we see here, or the great Iranian filmmakers like Farhadi and Abbas Kiarostami who tell their stories. These people -- troubled couple Nader and Simin and their family, and their employee Razieh and her family -- are more like most of us, and our neighbors. They have simple family and economic problems like ours. The Iranian cinema, at least since the 1970s and the advent of major world filmmakers like Kiarostami, Dariush Mehrjui, Mohsen Makhmalbaf, Majid Majidi and Jafar Panahi, has excelled at showing these kinds of people and this kind of story: simply made, lyrical, realistic, true.
Farhadi's film, set in contemporary Tehran -- the Iranian title is closer to "The Separation of Nader and Simin" -- gives us the pleasures of a vividly detailed, extremely well-acted humanistic domestic drama, along with the riveting twists of an intricate mystery and trial thriller, with an immaculately worked out plot that keeps twisting and swerving in unexpected directions. Good mystery stories please us because they imply that the world, no matter how deviously it's been abused or attacked, can be perceived, and the moral order restored (or at least understood). In A Separation, the central characters are part of two families who cross paths, disastrously. The first group includes a middle-class, intellectual Iranian couple, Nader and Simin (played by Peyman Moadi and Leila Hatami), and their little daughter Termeh (played by Farhadi's daughter Sarina) and Nader's Alzheimer's-stricken father (played by Ali-Asghar Shambazi), all caught up in a messy separation -- which neither of the parents really desires.
The more modern free-thinking Simin wants to move to the West, and she wants her husband and daughter to go with her. Nader, who knows his father can't be moved, won't leave him. Both parents think Termeh should stay with them, though Termeh chooses her father. The family is torn by this conflict, and the case is now in the hands of an interrogating judge (Barak Karimi), whom we feel is probably more sympathetic to Nader.
While the case is pieced together, another story develops. Because his father's dementia is worsening, and because he has to go to work and Termeh has to go to school, Nader hires a housekeeper/caregiver to help the confused old man during the day. This is Razieh (Sareh Bayat), who also has a little girl, Somayeh (Kimia Hosseini) and a hot-tempered, unemployed workman husband, Hodjat (Shahabad Hosseini, who is Kimia's real-life father). Of these seven people, Simin is the most Westernized and liberal, and her well-educated family tends to be moderate. Razieh's family are common people and devout Muslims, and Hodjat is stridently so.
Something happens that suddenly throws the two groups against each other -- and provides another problem for the court. What happened, and why, and how it will affect all of them, is the sum and substance of A Separation, and it makes the movie the equivalent of a compulsive page-turner of a novel.
A Separation is simply made, but it's not prosaic or conventional. Farhadi's huge worldwide critical hit, winner of more than 50 international awards, is a richly human drama, touching deeply on issues of religion, class, gender and old age. It's a riveting story, a disturbing one, but also, in some ways, reassuring. (Extras: commentary by Farhadi; featurettes: Birth of a Director, An Evening with Asghar Farhadi.)
Darling Companion (B)
U.S.: Lawrence Kasdan, 2012, Sony Pictures Home Entertainment
Darling Companion is Lawrence and Meg Kasdan's highly personal dog story about a beloved mutt who gets lost in the Rockies after a wedding party -- and about all the humorously dramatic and comically serious interactions of the upper-middle-class 50-something ensemble of doctors and wives and friends and gypsy housekeepers who try to find the vamoosed pooch.
I thought there were a lot of good things in Companion, beginning with its excellent age-diverse cast (Kevin Kline, Diane Keaton, Dianne Wiest, Richard Jenkins, Mark Duplass, Ayelet Zurer, Elisabeth Moss and Sam Shepard). There's also a lot of wit, craft and feeling in the piece and grace, intelligence and emotion in the Kasdans' script and in director Lawrence's low-pressure naturalistic staging.
The movie has its flaws -- an outlandishly implausible ending chiefly among them -- but compared to most of the unnaturalistic, unfunny, unserious, totally phony and sometimes obnoxiously ageist and condescendingly smart-ass gloppy stuff that often passes for American movie comedy-drama these days (and that sometimes gets a pass from the same people who pile on movies like Darling Companion), it's a movie that deserves some encouragement. I'd rather see more movies like this, with good parts for top-notch older actors like Kline, Keaton, Wiest and Jenkins, than eight more glam-as-usual youth-besotted shows starring Justin Timberlake, Ashton Kutcher or Katherine Heigl and the usual suspects, with or without lost dogs.
In this case, the dog in question is Freeway (played by the estimable Kasey). Freeway is found, in bad shape, by the side of a Denver freeway, by nervous spine surgeon's wife Beth Winter (Keaton) and her picky daughter Grace (Moss), and he's rescued, brought to a shelter, and saved by a charming vet named Sam (Jay Ali). Freeway then becomes the catalyst for the eventual wedding of Grace and Sam -- at a Rocky Mountain High gathering also attended by Beth's gifted sardonic, full-of-himself husband Joseph (Kline, terrific), earthy sister Penny (Wiest), Penny's doctor son Bryan (indie notable Duplass) and Penny's nice-guy fiance Russell (Jenkins), who triggers merriment when he announces plans for opening an English pub. Also present; prescient gypsy housekeeper Carmen (Zurer) and cantankerous local sheriff Morris (Shepard).
Much like Kasdan's best-liked movie The Big Chill, several generations ago (a show that also starred Kline), Darling Companion gets a lot of mileage out of its highly talented ensemble. The movie also shows a lot of affection for these fictional but believable people and nicely plays on our concern about the dog -- an emotion probably felt by anyone who's ever had an animal for a friend, especially one that came, as Freeway, Mac and Kasey all did, from a shelter.